With many anxious parishioners needing consolation, Red Deer churches are finding alternative ways of delivering their weekly services.
Most, if not all local houses of worship have stopped doing live services after the government banned gatherings of more than 50 people to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.
These churches have now reverted to various alternatives, such as holding virtual services available by livestream, video or audio.
“These are challenging times” — both emotionally and technologically, admitted Pastor Peter Rockhold, of the New Life Fellowship Christian Reform Church.
“The nice thing is that the people are all understanding and flexible, even when we have technical difficulties, because we’re not the most (tech savvy) people in the world, ” he added, with a chuckle.
As of last weekend, New Life Fellowship’s 100 members have been able to sign on to a Zoom interactive teleconference site.
After first obtaining a password from the church, small groups of four or five people can come together virtually to participate in discussions and prayers.
Other digital forms are also being explored. Rockhold said, “It’s an adjustment, but I think churches are adjusting well…”
At Deer Park Alliance Church, lead Pastor Ben Elliott now performs Sunday services in an empty church. These are videotaped and posted for viewing on the church’s website.
There’s also a “text to pray” option available, which allows parishioners to text in requests for prayers to be said for people who are experiencing troubles, said Elliott.
And the church is now looking at setting up a personal connection platform, such as Skype, that can be used for one-on-one consultations.
The sad irony of all this virus containment is not lost on Elliott, who observes that churches have usually functioned as an important community hub. Many people depend on Sunday services and various men’s and women’s groups to get out and commune with others.
Knowing this, he said several church members are making a point of reaching out to older people.
“In the middle of this coronavirus (pandemic), we are putting together a plan to be connected to all seniors over the phone.”
As well, a volunteer group was formed to help with picking up prescriptions and groceries for older parishioners who are at higher risk if they contract the virus, or who are housebound because of other illnesses.
Marriages and funerals present a new logistical challenge. Elliott had to tell a couple of brides and grooms to scale back their wedding plans to immediate family and best friends only.
“If they can all fit in my office, then it’s OK,” said Elliott, who advises these people to have a huge celebration on their first anniversary instead.
As for funerals, it’s small graveside ceremonies only for now.
“We’re all in this together, as a community,” he added, so people have so far been understanding.
Officials at Gaetz Memorial United Church are still allowing individuals to enter the sanctuary for reflection and prayers, even though there are no live services.
While church leaders explore options for livestreaming or videotaping local services, parishioners are being advised to watch other United Church services online.
Minister Leila Currie said she’s always available by phone for pastoral care, and church members are also calling more isolated people to ensure “nobody falls between the cracks.”
As Easter approaches, the prospect of having no live church services feels like “it’s Lent and we’re all in the wilderness,” said Currie.
“But if we are all living in a loving manner, being as compassionate as we can be, it means isolating ourselves, unfortunately…”
“Fortunately, there are a lot of ways of connecting these days and that’s a blessing.”